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Julius Eastman: Gay Guerrilla

“What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest—Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, and a homosexual to the fullest. It is important that I learn how to be, by that I mean accept everything about me.”

Julius Eastman (27 October 1940-28 May 1990)—composer, pianist, vocalist, improviser, conductor, actor, choreographer, and dancer—has left a musical legacy worthy of special attention. Now is a prime moment to attend to Eastman and his work, as we recognize and honor the loss of this significant musical figure just twenty-five years ago from today. Eastman’s (self-aware) queerness and blackness, his provocative and engaging compositions, and his ability to traverse musical and performance styles, have made it a challenge to characterize and historicize him within the history of American experimental music. In an interview with music theorist Ellie Hisama, Eastman’s mother, Frances Eastman, notes that her son “…was strange. From an early age, I tried to understand this child. I knew he was strange from very young.”

In a brief exploration of Eastman’s “strangeness,” I’d like to interrogate the hyper, hypo, and queered frequencies of his music and life, in an attempt to aid in a hearing of Eastman’s contributions to art and life on his own terms, as well in relation to the history of American Experimentalism.

Julius Eastman was born in New York City. His mother raised him, along with his little brother, in Ithaca, New York. In addition to him being a “strange” or queer (outside of the norm) and precocious child, Hisama quotes Frances Eastman, as she notes that “From two I knew he was smart,” and as a young autodidact, he taught himself to play the piano and read music by learning Beethoven’s Für Elise. Although Eastman and his family faced financial hardships, his mother fed his musical talents by getting him piano lessons, and his advanced musical abilities gained him entry into the esteemed Curtis Institute as a piano student, graduating with a composition degree in 1963.

Julius Eastman. Photograph by Donald W. Burkhardt. Used with permission.
Julius Eastman. Photograph by Donald W. Burkhardt. Used with permission.

“…[T]he Creative Associates were [not] very creative anymore. I had no power to plan programs and none of the stuff that I suggested was taken up…I was a kind of talented freak who occasionally injected some vitality in programming.”

After Curtis, Eastman moved to Buffalo, New York, and later joined the Creative Associates (1969), a group of experimental composers that included Morton Feldman, Lukas Foss, Pauline Oliveros, and others who have often been discussed as part of the canon of American experimental composers—sans Eastman. As the discourse of American experimental music has focused primarily on white (male) composers, Eastman’s place in this group is unique, but not singular. African-American vocalist Gwendolin Sims was also a member of the Creative Associates, and Hisama also points to Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, and Charles Gayle as active performers and teachers in Buffalo at the time. (This cohort of African American experimental composers in the Northeast also developed alongside the Advanced Association of Creative Musicians—a group of Chicago-based African-American experimental composers that included towering composers and performers, such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis).

Eastman became highly regarded for his abilities as a vocalist (also self taught) within the group, performing both common practice and experimental works. He is probably most known today for his virtuosic performance of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ experimental monodrama, “Eight Songs for a Mad King,” conducted by Pierre Boulez. Yet as the above quote suggests, his contributions as a composer were not fully recognized in this group, much like today, and it was after leaving the Creative Associates that Eastman penned some of his most provocative and stirringly reflexive compositions.

After a series of personal professional ups and downs—tenuous faculty appointments, co-director of Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert series with Talib Hakim and Tania León, serious financial set backs and drug-related addictions, touring vocalist with Meredith Monk—Eastman composed Gay Guerrilla, and the explicitly titled work, “Nigger Series,” including Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger, Dirty Nigger, and Nigger Faggot, in the late 1970s and early 80s. These “ecstatic minimalist” pieces, as described by Hisama, were highly controversial in their titles and performance, and prompted Eastman to make pre-concert statements on the political nature of the works.

“These names, either I glorify them or they glorify me. And in the case of guerrilla, that glorifies gay…A guerrilla is someone who in any case is sacrificing his life for a point of view. And you know if there is a cause, and if it is a great cause, those who belong to that cause, will sacrifice their blood because without blood there is no cause.” —Eastman on Gay Guerrilla

Score to Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerilla (1979); Duplicated with permission from Mary Jane Leach (mjleach.com/Eastmanscores.htm).
Score to Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerilla (1979); Duplicated with permission from Mary Jane Leach (mjleach.com/Eastmanscores.htm).

“…they can be called ‘Nigger Series.’ Now the reason I use that particular word is because, for me, it has a…is what I call a basicnesss about it. That is to say, I feel that, in any case, the first niggers were of course field niggers. And upon that is really the basis of what I call the American economic system…And what I mean by niggers is that thing which is fundamental, that person or thing that attains to a basicness, fundamentalness…” —Eastman on “Nigger Series”

Score to Julius Eastman’s Evil Nigger (1979); Duplicated with permission from Mary Jane Leach (mjleach.com/Eastmanscores.htm).
Score to Julius Eastman’s Evil Nigger (1979); Duplicated with permission from Mary Jane Leach (mjleach.com/Eastmanscores.htm).

Eastman’s late works were composed for multiple (often unspecified) instruments, and he generally employed small cells of (minimal) notes to be repeated and gradually change over time, allowing the performer(s) the freedom to move between designated sections in an improvisatory-like manner, as they converge at certain minute markers, while they diverge in interesting ways throughout the piece (see above examples).

It is hard to imagine the dynamism of Eastman’s work without hearing their realization. In a 2008 performance of “Crazy Nigger” at the Atrium Stadhuis Den Haag new music festival, we get a glimpse of how Eastman’s aesthetic and compositional style unfolds in time—creating an “ecstatic” performance out of minimal musical material that is both organized and improvised at once.

Maybe it was the provocative titles themselves, the racial, capital, or sexuality topics that Eastman addressed head on, or his position as an African American (self-identified) homosexual within the “uptown” and “downtown” scenes of experimentalism that have led to Eastman’s low-frequency status in contemporary music and art circles. But as he begins to resonate in the higher frequencies of contemporary music making and scholarship, we should work towards developing queered listening practices that extend beyond formal modes of music analysis and construction, to deeply engage with the transformative repetition, communal improvisation, social innovation, and critical awareness at the heart of Eastman’s work. Such a development of this queered aesthetic might get us closer to interrogating and finding new ways to improvise through the difficult topics of homophobia, capitalism, and racism that Eastman himself dealt with throughout his life.

This is particularly resonant during our current moment of social and political unrest, where people of people of color, queered peoples, and lower and working class folk are constantly challenging and challenged by certain societal structures. Appreciating, interrogating, and performing Eastman’s music and aesthetics might encourage a different mode of listening and being. As he himself noted, “therefore that is the reason I use ‘gay guerrilla,’ in hopes that I might be one if called upon to be one.” If we are called upon to be “gay guerrillas” in our work, art making, and living, maybe Eastman will help us get there a bit quicker.

Headline image credit: Sheet music. Photo by rjasso via Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain.

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